The year ahead in domestic politics and foreign affairs

This year should be a quiet one for most of Russia’s political parties, with no really significant elections. The Kremlin is unlikely to dismiss the Fradkov government until next year. Most citizens won’t notice that Russia is chairing the G8.

There shouldn’t be any substantial changes in Russia’s domestic political situation over the coming year. This assumption is supported by the fact that 2006 won’t see any elections of the kind that could influence the configuration of Russia’s main political forces. The Moscow city legislature election was held in 2005, the Duma election isn’t due until 2007, and the presidential election is even further off.

All the same, having learned a lesson from the Yeltsin era, Russia’s political analysts are not inclined to trust the authorities. No one could have guessed that Viktor Chernomyrdin’s government would be dismissed in 1998; Andrei Illarionov, who resigned as presidential advisor at the end of 2005, had at one time seriously considered Chernomyrdin as the favorite to become the next president. But things turned out otherwise: Chernomyrdin was replaced by Sergei Kirienko, little-known to the general public at the time.

Back in the late 1990s, there were some who doubted that the president would designate a successor – but the meteoric rise of Vladimir Putin’s career dispelled any doubts that such a development was entirely realistic.

Some analysts predict that the next Operation Successor will involve Mikhail Fradkov’s government being dismissed sometime in 2006, with the future president then becoming prime minister. Permit us to disagree with this forecast.

If the Kremlin has indeed decided to repeat its “magic trick” of 1999, the “successor” would become prime minister shortly before the elections. That would enable him to present his best face to the public within a brief period of time, rather than becoming a hostage to his office – that happened to Alexander Lebedev as secretary of the Security Council and to Sergei Stepashin as prime minister. After all, there’s no way of telling what might happen over the two remaining years until the elections.

To put it simply, it would be advantageous for the Kremlin to “marinate” its candidate, keeping him in a senior office until 2007, then starting the advertising campaign. So the Fradkov Cabinet is unlikely to be dismissed in 2006. And the senior ministers will probably retain their posts: Herman Gref, Alexei Kudrin, Sergei Ivanov, Rashid Nurgaliyev, Sergei Lavrov.

Party-building continues

The main outcome of party-building in 2006 will be the triumphant procession of an idea across Russia: the idea of parties that win regional legislature elections having the right to nominate regional leaders. Once this has been applied to the first two or three regions, it will become clear that there’s nothing wrong with this idea. After all, not much will change as a result of introducing this new procedure. Given the United Russia party’s total dominance in the majority of Russian regions, there shouldn’t be any serious conflicts between the authorities and regional legislatures.

And United Russia will have a splendid opportunity to reinforce its ranks. Any regional leaders who want to keep their jobs are sure to join the party, in order to continue working for the benefit of regional residents.

Party-building by the other parties won’t be as noticeable. Since there aren’t any significant elections coming up in 2006, the main opposition forces will either sit it out, waiting, or do some “reconnaissance by combat” in the form of publicity stunts and the slogans they plan to use in the Duma campaign of 2007.

The Motherland (Rodina) party will have to solve the problem of reinforcing its ranks. Last year saw the formation of two factions called Motherland. What’s more, Motherland will have to decide whether to toughen or relax its stance in the immigrant problem. On the one hand, using this idea more extensively would carry the risk of marginalizing the party somewhat. On the other hand, the illegal migrant problem won’t be solved in 2006; therefore, the number of voters displeased about the lack of a solution to the ethnic problem can only increase.

The Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) are likely to remain very much as they are, occasionally drawing attention to themselves by their comments about major political developments. As for the liberal parties, they will face some big decisions in 2006. Should they maintain the alliance formed for the Moscow city legislature election, or continue their separate existence? Actually, neither option is looking very good. So the leaders of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (URF) will have a difficult puzzle to solve this year. Meanwhile, right-wingers from both parties will continue reminding the public about “democratic values,” demanding freedom for former YUKOS chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and hoping there are no more electricity blackouts to produce further criticism of Anatoly Chubais, one of the URF’s leading ideologues.

Russia and the rest of the world

Most citizens won’t notice that Russia is chairing the Group of Eight this year. The G8 summit will get much more television coverage, that’s all.

But Russia’s oil policy will generate plenty of discussion. At the end of 2005, the government raised its oil price forecast from $40 to $45 per barrel. All year, everyone will be asking two questions: What if oil prices don’t fall after all? How large will the Stabilization Fund grow? The first question will be answered by market prices, which almost certainly won’t fall – they are more likely to rise (there’s the unsolved problem of Iran, and China’s energy demands, and the constantly-increasing number of natural disasters). The government has prepared an answer to the second question, in the form of the national projects – set to become a focus of the Cabinet’s economic policy program in the event that inflation remains unchanged.

No visible breakthroughs should be expected in Russia’s relations with other CIS countries. No one really believes any longer that the ruble will become a common currency for Russia and Belarus; but neither is it very likely that any orange forces can topple the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who is predicted to win another term in office this year. Regardless of whether President Islam Karimov was right or wrong to act as he did, his harsh suppression of the Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan managed to stop the domino effect of revolutions across the former Soviet Union.

Assuming that the present regime in Kiev retains power, Russian-Ukrainian relations will remain fairly complicated. Kiev will continue to waver between the European Union and the Common Economic Area (EEP), but due to certain reasons it won’t get close to joining either of these organizations. The most that President Viktor Yushchenko can count on is World Trade Organization membership; in theory, however, the WTO’s doors might also open for Russia by the end of the year.

Ukraine’s parliamentary elections won’t change anything either. Viktor Yanukovich’s expected “technical” victory won’t be enough to give him control of the Supreme Rada; and that means the political crisis in Ukraine will continue.